Workers at one of Chicago's largest health care systems say company officials have stoked a culture of fear that has kept them from organizing despite six years of effort.
AFSCME Council 31 has been attempting to organize the housekeepers and food service workers at Resurrection Health Care, which operates eight local hospitals and a constellation of other health facilities. According to a spokesman for the union and several Resurrection workers, an election now would fail because too many of the company's workers fear retribution.
"We need to be able to talk to people openly," says Maggie Nielsen, an emergency room nurse at Our Lady of the Resurrection on the far North Side. Nielsen, a 14-year Resurrection employee, says the union would almost certainly lose an election by workers for representation.
"There is too much fear and intimidation right now," she says.
Brian Crawford, a spokesman for Resurrection, says the health care provider has not attempted to dissuade workers from voting and is not engaged in an effort to derail their efforts.
Crawford says the union has simply failed to mobilize enough workers to support the effort. He pointed to last year's report by Modern Healthcare Magazine that ranked Resurrection at the 19th best place to work in health care in the U.S.
"We believe our employees do have a right to organize," Crawford says, "the employee voice is the only one that matters."
But according to Miguel Bustamante, a food service store room clerk for 15 years at St. Francis Hospital in Evanston, supervisors began taking away tasks once they learned he was involved in organizing efforts.
"They tried to use me as an example," Bustamante, who lives in Chicago, says.
Nielsen says workers have been silenced over the years by hospital officials seeking to undercut the organizing drive. She notes the union has filed a series of unfair labor practice charges against the hospital with the National Labor Relations Board.
According to Gail Moran, assistant to the regional director of the Chicago office of the NLRB, there have been 40 charges filed against Resurrection or one of its affiliates by AFSCME Council 31 since 2002. Thirteen were found to have merit and resulted in a settlement.
One of the charges involved prohibitions on union solicitation that was overly broad under the National Labor Relations Act. Most of the charges involved questions by supervisors to employees about their organizing activities.
"That's not a 'wow' to us," says Moran. "Employees are asked things about their union activity that are unlawful all the time. It's a very common violation in an organizing drive."
Crawford says that because virtually all of the charges were filed by AFSCME, they don't necessarily reflect the concerns of Resurrection workers. She added that the absence of litigation or monetary settlements may indicate Resurrection respects the efforts of its workers.
Robert Malgieri, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, says Resurrection is a "poster child for why EFCA [Employee Free Choice Act] is needed."
The bill would allow for card-checks and force employers to begin negotiating with unions much quicker than is currently established by law. Malgieri says AFSCME Council 31 is trying to organize about 8,000 of the health care provider's nurses, housekeepers and food service workers. Resurrection has about 15,000 employees.
"They just cut their benefits and increased the price of health insurance," Malgieri says.
But Crawford, the Resurrection spokesman, says the hospital offers competitive pay.
Nielsen, the emergency room nurse, says it will only be a matter of time before the union drive succeeds.
"All we want is a fair process, an open dialogue to speak to other employees," she says. "I'm not going to quit until we've got it."
Staff Writer Fernando Diaz covers labor and unions for the Daily News. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 14.